By Li Hongmei
Headlights on and horns blaring, around 25 American military trucks and tractor trailers carrying Bradley fighting vehicles trundled across the southern Iraq desert from their last base early Sunday morning. Flak jackets and helmets stacked in neat piles, the last convoy of 500 U.S. troops waved goodbye to the almost nine years’ battle front, ready for the final departure for Kuwait and then home.
The bloodletting war has since its “dramatic” opening in March 2003 lasted eight years and nine months, thus far costing over one million Iraqi and 4,500 American lives and left the Middle Eastern country open with wild speculations as to whether it would become a democratic and civil state as the West wished or just fall into shambles economically and politically, or would be grappling with extremism, sectarianism and terrorism.
For U.S. President Barack Obama, the military pullout is the fulfilment of an election promise to bring an end to a shameful legacy left over by his predecessor, the most unpopular war since Vietnam and one that has tainted America's standing worldwide.
Seventy-five percent of U.S. citizens do not believe the military mission which has cost 1 trillion dollars is worth that “blood and treasure” and are happy to see their forces home.
For Iraqis, the U.S. exit brings some sense of sovereignty. But many fret over the likelihood that their country may slide once again into the kind of sectarian violence that killed many thousands of people at its peak in 2006-2007.
Also, security remains a particular concern, as attacks on local government offices and security installations continue and Iraqis are still being killed by regular bombings and shootings. Besides, extremism and terrorism could make a comeback after the American pullout.
On the domestic front, with the departure of American troops, Iraq's delicate power-sharing deal for Sunni and Kurdish factions would get much more fragile. Its stagnant economy needs investment in all sectors, from hospitals to infrastructure.
Furthermore, the majority of Iraqi people are struggling to get jobs and access to power in a country whose national grid provides only a few hours of electricity a day despite its vast oil potential. Seven million out of 30 million Iraqis live below the poverty line. And 1.3 million Iraqis are displaced within the country.
Albeit at such a grievous cost, Iraq, however, remains dependent on Washington, as it has no frontier force, navy or airforce. Neither police nor army, now 800,000 strong, can ensure security or provide protection from external attack or meddling.
Meanwhile, there are Iraqi people who are, on the one hand, celebrating the U.S. pull-out, and on the other, believe the U.S. exit is not a withdrawal, but an act on a stage, in that the U.S. military presence and clout would never recede with the withdrawal of its troops.
At the height of the war, more than 170,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq at more than 500 bases. With the U.S. exit from Iraq, there will be around 150 U.S. troops remaining in the country attached to a training and cooperation mission at the huge U.S. embassy on the banks of the Tigris river.
Geopolitically, Iraq is caught between the U.S., which retains major military facilities in nearby Qatar and Bahrain, and Iran, which tries to gain political and economic advantages and seeks to draw the post-war Iraq into its sphere of influence.
The U.S. would by no means leave Iraq for good, although it has pulled back its troops. But, Iraq, as a critical piece on the Middle East strategic chess board, will never be readily abandoned by the U.S. “To retreat is to advance”, which is not only a military tactic, but a far-reaching strategy as well.
At this rate, the U.S. military pullout from Iraq cannot be interpreted as a real vacuum of the U.S. military presence and any shrink in U.S. regional influence.